In my countless hours of television-watching, I've noticed a certain sitcom device that doesn't get much attention. It's what you might call a comedic red herring: In the first act of a show, a new situation, character, or object is introduced. Savvy viewer that you are, you think you know where this episode is going, only to watch the show take an unexpected turn. Not surprisingly, clever, fast-paced shows like The Simpsons and 30 Rock just love these sitcom MacGuffins, and tonight's Raising Hope relied on just such a device.
The catalyst for the action in this episode is Jimmy's cumbersome-looking video camera (Question: does anyone call them camcorders anymore, or is that like calling a stereo a "hi-fi"?), which he plans to use to record home movies of Hope. Naturally, this is just the sort of earnest gesture that sets up him for ridicule from his parents. Virginia and Burt use the camera to film various Jackass-style exploits, and soon, it becomes clear to Jimmy that his chances of capturing some sweet, candid moments on film are next to nothing. At this point, it seems that we might have an entire episode dedicated to a series of pranks, but thankfully, the plot takes a turn. Jimmy secretly hides the camera in the kitchen, and though it works, Sabrina alerts him to a new problem: Virginia put Hope's pacifier back in her mouth after it dropped on the ground.
Just like that, the focal point of the episode shifts. It's not about home movies any longer, but germs. Hopped-up on Sabrina's germophobic rhetoric and wielding a bacteria-detecting black light that will be familiar to viewers of the soul-crushingly stupid MTV show, Room Raiders, Jimmy convinces Burt and Virginia they need to scour the house. Using a flod light borrowed from a friend who cleans crime scenes—"the murder industry is recession proof"—the Chances are pleased to discover their home is microbe-free. That is, until Maw Maw rolls into the living room, her body a mottled minefield of blue splotches, setting off a chain reaction of contamination. It was an inspired visual gag that led to the next twist in the plot: What will they do about Maw Maw?
On reflection, it's probably a misnomer to call Jimmy's video camera a red herring. It's more that the narrative goals on this show shift so widlly from act to act. The camera is just the catalyst for the pranks of act one; the germs are the catalyst for the extreme measures of act two; and Maw Maw's move to the greenhouse is the decision which leads to the discovery of home movies, which lead to a moment of tenderness and the ultimate vindication of the Chances' "disgusting" habits. Got that?All the zig-zagging is essential to the show's zany, freewheeling vibe. The "Blue Dots" episode, in which Jimmy's quest to get Hope into a fancy nursery school becomes a quest to clear Burt's record of a long-ago sex crime, is also a prime example of this tendency.
The acting on the show is somewhat uneven, not in terms of quality, but tone; sometimes it feels like the characters inhabit different aesthetic universes. Garrett Dillahunt is really wonderful as Burt, the Chance family patriarch, though somehow that seems too lofty a word to describe his character. Coming from Dillahunt, even the cornball jokes about Burt's stupidity—"Thou shalt not spy! That's one of the Declarations of Independence"—are sorta funny in an utterly predictable way. Like Phil Dunphy on Modern Family, Burt also gets most of the show's best lines. He's a cartoonish oaf, but Dillahunt makes him a very funny one.
As Jimmy, Lucas Neff is either understated or uncharismatic; I can't quite decide which. Like Todd, I worry that Neff doesn't have the presence to really carry the show. There have been moments when Neff's dopey demeanor works for laughs, but just as often, he's mostly just a benign presence. On a show like Raising Hope, I suppose you need an anchor amid all the craziness, but I'm not sure that's what Neff really accomplishes; sometimes I forget he's onscreen, especially when Dillahunt is around. That being said, I am willing to be convinced. Any avid Neff supporters out there?
Yet for all Raising Hope's quirk- and whiplash-inducing narrative shifts, there's an old-fashioned predictability to the joke-writing that keeps the show from being really great. Take the final scene from this episode, in which Maw Maw runs after a truck that's in the home movie, taking a sheet with her. Only seconds before, Burt and Virginia are talking about how lucid she seems, which means only one thing: time for Maw Maw to act crazy again.
- I am totally going to recycle that "pastafarian" joke and pretend it was mine sometime in the future.
- "You can't point out all the things God messed up." "What was he thinking of, making all those trees? I would have stopped at pine."
- "We could just build a mister with an electric eye so it sprays her every time she walks through. We can't be the first person to think of this."
- "So this is what zoos will be like when the apes take over? Cool."
- "I saw her fall out of a moving car in the parking lot. She looked good, though."
- "People in glass houses should not throw stones or sleep naked."
- "Wanna get your camera out for some of this, Scorecheesy?"
- The five-second rule is totally real, and in my house, it's 10 seconds. On a related note, who wants to come over for dinner?